Kerri Walsh Jennings

Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
FIVB World Tour

Kerri Walsh Jennings boosts Olympic hopes with best finish in three years

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Kerri Walsh Jennings made her first tournament final since 2016 this week. She likely must reach more in what’s looking like her toughest road to an Olympic beach volleyball berth.

Walsh Jennings, a 40-year-old, triple Olympic champion, and new partner Brooke Sweat took runner-up at a mid-level FIVB World Tour event in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.

Accomplished Czechs Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova rallied past the Americans 24-26, 22-20, 15-12. But Walsh Jennings and Sweat still earned enough points to jump to the top of the very early U.S. Olympic qualifying rankings.

1. Walsh Jennings/Sweat – 2,620 (6 events played)
2. Klineman/Ross – 2,440 (4 events)
3. Day/Flint – 2,180 (5 events)
4. Larsen/Stockman — 1,680 (4 events)
5. Sponcil/Claes — 1,600 (3 events)
5. Hughes/Ross — 1,600 (3 events)

The key is that Walsh Jennings and Sweat have played the most events of the contending teams. The top two pairs come June 15, 2020, provided they’re ranked high enough internationally, will qualify for Tokyo. Most of the qualifying events, including the ones with the most points available, are still to come this summer.

Each team’s 12 best results go into the Olympic qualifying rankings. Alix Klineman and April Ross are in a stronger current position than Walsh Jennings and Sweat because they’re averaging more points per tournament having played two fewer events.

The Kuala Lumpur field lacked any teams from powerhouse Brazil. Also absent were Ross and Klineman and Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, the two U.S. teams to win top-level events last season.

Kuala Lumpur marked the sixth international event for Walsh Jennings since splitting from 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh and partnering with Sweat last fall.

Walsh Jennings’ 2017 season, after she and Rio Olympic bronze-medal partner April Ross split, ended prematurely with her sixth right shoulder surgery (followed by an ankle surgery). She said before the 2018 season that the 2020 Olympics would be her last, assuming she qualifies.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh had a best 2018 finish of fifth in six FIVB events before splitting. She and Sweat, who partnered with Lauren Fendrick in Rio, have a pair of thirds and now a runner-up in six events together.

Another veteran Olympian, 41-year-old Reid Priddy, had his best career finish by making the Kuala Lumpur final with Theo Brunner. Brazilians Alison and Alvaro Filho swept them 24-22, 21-18.

Priddy switched to the sand after competing in his fourth Olympic indoor tournament in Rio. Priddy and Brunner are one of several U.S. men’s teams jockeying for two potential Olympic berths.

The top U.S. men’s team in this Olympic cycle has clearly been 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, who were absent from Kuala Lumpur and have played just two events in the Olympic qualifying window, finishing second in one of them.

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VIDEO: Beach volleyball Olympian surprises her team with baby announcement

Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat partner for 2020 Olympic run

Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
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Kerri Walsh Jennings has a new partner for her 2020 Olympic run — Rio Olympian Brooke Sweat.

“The times I’ve enjoyed the most success, consistent success, that was when there was a true defender behind me, that made me a big blocker,” Walsh Jennings said. “Brooke really sits in the same vein as [retired three-time Olympic champion partner] Misty [May-Treanor]. Brooke is her own athlete and has her own assets and strengths, but largely what Misty and Brooke share in common is their inherent knowledge in the game and the fact it’s in her blood. You can just tell she gets it.

“Brooke, literally, could be the best defender in the world.”

Walsh Jennings, a 40-year-old with three Olympic titles and three children, and Sweat, who went winless in Rio with Lauren Fendrick, are entered in two early Olympic qualifying tournaments this month in Las Vegas and Mexico. The Las Vegas event doubles as a stop on Walsh Jennings’ new p1440 tour.

Walsh Jennings is entered in an event in China this week with 23-year-old Kelly Claes, but 32-year-old Sweat will be her full-time partner for a potential sixth Olympic run.

“She called me, I forget, maybe two months ago, just asked if I’d be interested [in practicing together],” Sweat said, adding that Walsh Jennings was trying out one other player. “Eventually, she made her decision and asked me if I wanted to play and go for gold with her.

“It’s always nice to have one of the best players ever calling you. It was a good day.”

Olympic beach volleyball qualifying runs into 2020, with no more than two pairs per gender per nation earning Tokyo berths.

The best U.S. teams at the moment are Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, who won a top-level international event last month, and April Ross and Alix Klineman, the top team in the 2018 AVP season.

“The toughest thing about our journey right now with Brooke and I is we’re starting at the bottom,” Walsh Jennings said. “I respect all the teams on the American side. I’m not concerned about them. I always want to concern myself with my team and my team only.”

Earlier this year, Walsh Jennings played with fellow mom and 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh, while Sweat was with Summer Ross before Ross partnered with Hughes. Both Walsh Jennings and Sweat split from their Rio Olympic partners less than a year after the Games.

While Walsh Jennings has 55 career international titles (the last with April Ross in 2016 after their Olympic bronze medals), Sweat’s best finish in 58 starts was a runner-up in 2017.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh never found consistency in competition before breaking up in July, in part because Walsh Jennings’ 2017 season ended prematurely with her sixth right shoulder surgery (followed by an ankle surgery).

In 10 FIVB tournaments together, their best finish was fourth, and they had just one other quarterfinal. Walsh Jennings can become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player in history in Tokyo.

“I”m pretty sure that I would have retired had we won [gold in Rio],” Walsh Jennings said on the On Her Turf podcast. “For a year and a bit, I have lived in fear, in fear of regressing, in fear of being that player who showed up that [Rio Olympic] semifinal [loss] night. … I had this [bad] night, and I dragged April down with it, which will always bug me, because she deserves that gold.”

Walsh Jennings said before her 2018 season that the 2020 Olympics would be her last, assuming she qualifies.

“I want to finish on top. I want to go out with a fairytale ending,” she said.

Sweat hasn’t played since the first week of May due to season-ending surgery on a right shoulder that’s bothered her for three years. Sweat had a previous shoulder surgery Sept. 10, 2015, the same day as Walsh Jennings’ fifth right shoulder surgery.

Sweat first saw Walsh Jennings during her freshman year at Florida Gulf Coast University. Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor visited a Fort Myers Toyota dealership for an exhibition. FGCU players were invited to play against the Olympic champions, but Sweat sat out with a knee injury.

Sweat said she and Walsh Jennings had talked about playing together earlier in this Olympic cycle, but the timing was not right.

“It’s not about my shoulder or her shoulder,” Sweat said. “We’re in this for Tokyo gold. That’s my focus.”

MORE: New beach team nets biggest U.S. breakout in a decade

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Kerri Walsh Jennings confirms plan to retire, narrows partner list

Kerri Walsh Jennings
AP
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ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — Kerri Walsh Jennings will call it a career in beach volleyball after the Tokyo Olympics in two years.

She has big plans before her days on the sand are done, and for improving the long-term health and growth of the sport well into the future by creating new playing opportunities in the U.S.

The three-time Olympic gold medalist absolutely expects to go out with another gold around her neck from the 2020 Games after she and partner April Ross wound up with bronze at Rio in 2016, a heartbreaking disappointment that still stings for Walsh Jennings yet fuels her at the same time.

“I haven’t shouted it from the mountaintops,” Walsh Jennings said Thursday of her career timeline in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press.

It may sound like a daunting task ahead: Walsh Jennings will turn 42 during the next Olympics. She has yet to settle on a partner, after she and Nicole Branagh split last month, though she has narrowed down her choice to two women. She is also coming off a pair of surgeries last year on her right shoulder and left ankle.

Just three weeks ago she began using the shoulder to hit the ball with her usual power and motion.

“I have no partner. I just came off two surgeries, and I know I’m going to win gold in Tokyo,” she said emphatically of her Olympic hurrah despite her share of lows in recent years. “… It makes this one and this journey that much more meaningful.”

Back home in the Bay Area to promote her upcoming beach volleyball extravaganza — “it’s a movement” she says — to be held at the San Jose Earthquakes’ Avaya Stadium in late September.

The “p1440” event featuring volleyball, health and wellness resources and opportunities, music, kids’ experiences and much more will go Sept. 28-30. Tickets went on sale Thursday, and additional events are scheduled for Las Vegas, San Diego and Huntington Beach this year and four more cities in 2019.

Walsh Jennings and husband Casey are committed to living each day to the fullest, all 1,440 minutes, inspiring the name.

“It’s all about living in the moment,” she said. “I certainly need to practice what I preach. It’s knowing what I want in life.”

They have long wanted to have their own academy, and now p1440 will combine a competition environment with opportunities for personal development no matter someone’s fitness level or physical challenge with the support of sports psychology and a technology platform and educational tools.

Walsh Jennings is striving to be her best every day and is driven to “live in my strengths,” whether that means being present for her husband and three children, dealing with her failures as well as her triumphs, or remembering to take a moment each morning and night to remind herself what she is most grateful for in her life.

After failing to win gold in Rio, Walsh Jennings struggled to find her top form because she was “living in fear on the court.” Even after earning bronze in ’16, she carried the weight of her defeat with her for months and years. That had never happened before.

Now, at last, she has come through that. With help from those close to her each step of the way, of course.

“We are pure positivity,” she said. “I really do believe happiness is a choice. I really believe staying positive is a choice.”

She had a falling out with the Association of Volleyball Professionals at the end of 2016 and has since ventured out on her own by taking on the formation of p1440 with huge aspirations of making it stick as a viable option for professionals.

Walsh Jennings insists volleyball can be a sport that has a far greater reach than just the every-four-years Olympic chase when people tend to tune in to see one of the Games’ most popular events.

That’s why Walsh Jennings believes she still has so much to give in beach volleyball and far beyond.

“I think I would have retired if we won gold in Rio,” said Walsh Jennings, who first hinted at one more Olympic run in December 2016, then said in April that 2020 would be her final Games. “This is my platform. I’m not done with my platform. That loss is going to serve me in so many different ways.”

Losing in Rio while “performing terribly” has changed Walsh Jennings. She has learned from it and become better for it.

“It’s so liberating when your weaknesses are exposed,” she said, “when you live your worst nightmare and survive.”

MORE: 20 U.S. athletes to watch, 2 years out from Tokyo 2020

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